John Roach

Roach: Madison's 20-inch snow day

John Roach remembers a day in 1990

It’s the time of the year when we look to see what is swirling in the Texas Panhandle. That’s the spot that spawns our big December snows.

For Madison, the most memorable of these started on Sunday, Dec. 2, 1990.

It was the best snowstorm ever.

The first hint of something big came when I had my rump in one of the sugar maples that guard the front of our house. I was doing my usual incompetent job of stringing holiday lights.

This task always included a tangle of green cords, numerous inoperative bulbs, the precarious placement of a ladder exactly 3 inches too short to accomplish the task, and several tripped ground-fault circuit interrupters. A GFCI is a device that shuts off an electric circuit if it detects electric current flowing through an unintended path, like water—or a person in a tree hanging Christmas lights.

To add to this Griswoldian scenario, I was failing at my holiday task in front of four neighbor buddies: Phil, Rich, John and Sturge. They were beneath me with Sunday beers in hand, cackling at my ineptitude. Somewhere around 3 p.m., Rich went back inside his house to grab more Miller Lites. In a flash, he trundled back out and bellowed, “Storm warning: 16-20 inches! Or MORE!”

Now, anyone who has grown up in the greater Wisconsin area is used to winter storm warnings. As the years have progressed, the warnings have become more frequent and exact. The Weather Channel will treat 4 inches of snow like the Kennedy assassination.

But even the most jaded Wisconsinite will turn his or her head when the forecast predicts 20 inches of snow. Twenty inches of snow? Damn.

The first person to react—and when I say “react,” I mean it looked like he had just heard that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor—was Phil. He dropped his beer on the pavement and said, “I gotta go!” and charged into his garage. One minute later, he was speeding out of his driveway at 75 miles per hour.

The reason? Phil was one of the guys in charge of order fulfillment at Lands’ End in Dodgeville back when Lands’ End was really Lands’ End. And the next day, Monday, Dec. 3, was the biggest day of the company’s Christmas season. Phil knew he had a problem.

As he careened down the street, one of the guys said, “Hey, nice talkin’ to ya, Phil.”

The rest of us broke up to do the things guys do before a big snow event. Gas the blower. Find the shovels. Hunt for that bag of salt.

And then the wait began. By 5 that afternoon, all programming on our TVs had been preempted by The Weather Channel. I built a fire. And paced. Our three children were 7, 5 and 3 at the time. They thought Dad was going crazy. But I simply had Storm Brain.

 The storm began innocuously. I made an official notation of the first flake just after midnight by announcing it to nobody but myself. Somewhere around 3 a.m., I dozed off. At 6 a.m., I rose and it had begun in earnest.

And for the next eight hours, the snow came down in sheets. We frolicked in the snow all day. Climbed the snow mountain created by the plows. Went sledding down the hill alongside the house.

Late in the day, all the neighborhood kids were playing in our yard. Suddenly, they stopped and stared at me from atop the mounds of snow on the perimeter of the driveway. For a moment I wondered why they were gawking. And then I found out.

Our neighbor Sturge, a former NHL hockey player, had taken a running start from his house and tore all the way down our driveway to hit me with one of the finest body checks a toothless defenseman ever made. I flew and landed in a 6-foot pile of snow. For a moment I was a big, fat snowflake myself.

Sturge and I laughed like kids. And our kids laughed like kids.

That’s the beauty of a snowstorm. You can hit your neighbor and laugh.

Phil had to bring in some of his Lands’ End employees via snowmobile to the office. They slept on the floor and ate Pizza Hut for two days.

By the end of that Monday, Madison had recorded its single greatest 24-hour snowfall total in history: 17.3 inches. Overall totals hit 22 inches.

So, if you are smart, this time of year you will keep your eye on that little low pressure system in North Texas. 

And gas up the blower.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

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